Effective Cost-Control Strategies Remain Elusive, NASA Officials Say

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Research Council (NRC) is recommending steps NASA should take to rein in cost and schedule problems on its Earth and space science missions, but senior agency officials say much of the panel’s advice has already been adopted — so far without evident success — on large development projects including the $5 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

In a report released July 13 during a two-day meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee, the NRC commended NASA on recent changes in how it estimates spending on space and Earth science programs, but said the agency needs a broad, integrated strategy to contain costs and maintain schedule on these missions. The report, “Cost Growth in NASA Earth and Space Science Missions,” also said the agency should wait to lock in program cost estimates until the preliminary design review stage.

Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for science, sees strong merit in those recommendations, but said other suggestions in the report, such as conducting multiple cost reviews and spending more time and money fleshing out projects during the early design stages, were applied to JWST without success.

“There must be another factor we’re missing,” Weiler said July 13 at the meeting. “Is it the number of unknown unknowns? Is it human behavior? Is it profit? Because I’m at a loss. I’m looking for help.”

In an interview July 14, Weiler said he had read the report, prepared by an NRC panel chaired by Ronald Sega, a former U.S. Air Force undersecretary, and that only time will tell whether its recommendations will make a difference.

“Nobody has given any of us the magic bullet after 50 years of overruns on many projects; nobody yet to my knowledge has come up with the magic bullet that would solve all the problems at once,” Weiler said in the interview.

Weiler noted that the report recommends spending more time and money in the early phases of a program to bring the required technologies to a high level of maturity, and committing to a budget for full-scale development only after costs can be reliably estimated.

“We at NASA applaud those words,” he said. “You can’t take a decadal survey estimate or a Phase A estimate off view-graphs and hold anybody accountable to that because you don’t know enough; you haven’t eliminated enough of the technological variables. Not until you get to Phase C start do you have a reasonable chance of having some of those numbers, so I couldn’t agree more with Ron in all of that.”

Jon Morse, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said during the meeting that since JWST was approved in 1999, NASA spent 10 years and roughly $2 billion of the program’s estimated $5 billion lifecycle cost to define and develop the mission’s design and technical approach. In addition, NASA initiated an independent technology review of the program in 2007 before it successfully completed a preliminary design review in mid-2008.

Yet cost overruns on the program persist.

Morse said NASA projected three years ago it would need $260 million for JWST in 2011, but since then the need has grown to about $470 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

“And we’re still struggling to have adequate reserves in order to treat issues that are coming up,” he said.

Morse said cost projections provided by JWST prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and its subcontractors “appear to exceed the available reserves” in 2011 and 2012. NASA has about $45 million in reserve for those years combined.

Robert Burke, vice president of civil and military systems at Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Aerospace, said the company is working closely with NASA and with its industry partners at Ball Aerospace, Alliant Techsystems and ITT to launch JWST as early as possible, with the lowest possible overall cost.

“Now that we’ve successfully completed the mission [critical design review], we need to continue the great progress we have been making on delivering hardware for this first-of-its-kind system,” Burke said in a July 15 e-mail. “That hardware includes 18 hexagonal flight mirrors that have already been built and now are being polished to an unprecedented accuracy of less than 20 nanometers.”

Burke said the key to program success is to ensure “a solid plan is in place, to get the test requirements and planning right, and to get the finances in order by ensuring management reserves are available and properly phased.”

Morse said Northrop Grumman and its subcontractors are not alone in consuming JWST’s funding margin, citing more than $150 million in cost overruns attributed to the observatory’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), an instrument being developed at the University of Arizona in Tucson with the help of Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center of Palo Alto, Calif.

Morse said the original bid for NIRCam, submitted in early 2001, was $50 million, and that today the contract value exceeds $200 million.

“It looks like this NIRCam is going to be outstanding — it’s got great detectors and beautiful functionality — but it has really come at a large price,” Morse said.

Marcia Rieke, the University of Arizona scientist leading NIRCam’s development, said the instrument has gone through several changes since it was proposed, including a restructuring that led to the loss of some $25 million in components that were to be supplied by the Canadian Space Agency.

Rieke said July 16 that she and Lockheed Martin have found ways to streamline the remaining work on the NIRCam to save roughly 15 percent relative to cost estimates generated in recent months.

“I am pleased with the quality of [the] instrument that will be delivered, and with [Lockheed Martin’s] efforts to stem the instrument’s cost growth,” she said in a July 16 e-mail.

During the meeting, Sega cited the block development strategy on the Air Force’s GPS 3 navigation satellite program as an example of successful project planning. Specifically, Sega said the Air Force pushed two vendors vying to build the GPS 3 space segment to rapidly mature capabilities that presented minimal risk while postponing work on more challenging technologies. The program’s critical design review is under way, and Sega said the effort is slightly ahead of schedule and within budget.

Morse said comparing a leading-edge astronomy flagship mission to incremental development of a satellite system based on a proven technology is not appropriate.

“There’s nothing like this; this is so revolutionary,” he told the panel. “It’s the complexity and the fact that you just haven’t done this before.”

Weiler said JWST passed its critical design review in April “with flying colors,” but as a result of scarce funding reserves during the first four years of the program, a “bow-wave of schedule” is driving the cost.

“Its not technical on JWST right now, its really schedule [that] is money when your’re running a thousand contractors,” Weiler said.

In addition to ongoing reviews by the JWST Standing Review Board and a new independent test assessment team that Weiler initiated in May, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has called for a broader outside review to find the root cause of the program’s cost and schedule problems and offer possible solutions.

“I am deeply troubled by the escalating costs for the JWST,” Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that oversees NASA spending, wrote in a June 29 letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Weiler said NASA is drafting a response to Mikulski’s letter, and that he expects the multiple independent reviews to help the program find a path forward without adding more money, at least in the forthcoming budget year.

Weiler said reducing some requirements could save money, particularly during thermal vacuum testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. He noted that the current test regime may be targeting a degree of capability that is “a hundred times better” than the imaging capability of the Hubble Space Telescope currently on orbit. “I won’t lose any sleep if we reduce it to 90 percent,” he said.